In Miriam Toews‘ latest book, Irma Voth, a film director tells Irma (Toews’ quintessential sarcastic girl trying to escape her Mennonite heritage) that he wants his film’s main star to be “too big for her body, a living secret, squeezed out through here, here, and especially here.” He points at his chest, his eyes. Irma thinks he’s nuts. It’s not until later on we realise he’s a renowned Mexican film director, not just a crazy guy, and he has just made an influential film about Irma’s Mennonite town of Chihuahua, Mexico, about a group of people who have never seen a movie.
But that, believe it or not, is not the main story. The main story, like Toews’ The Flying Troutmans, and A Complicated Kindness, involves escape, relationships with sisters, and high-paced, quotationless dialogue scenes with scores of hilarious characters.
One of these is a baby sister Irma and her sister Aggie are entrusted to take care of. We get reminded of her often: “Ximena (the baby) was still very much alive.” Ximena is always doing things within scenes: “Aggie and I badly danced the tango in the dying light while Ximena punched away the ghosts,” and “she could go for ages without blinking like she was challenging you to fill the empty whites of her eyes up with something better than what she was seeing right then. She could wait forever.” Ximena is, like Irma says, “very much alive,” and that’s what I love about Miriam Toews. Every single character is so cool.
Toews’ setting descriptions should make every writer who is afraid of writing setting think oh, you can do this?:
“I didn’t know what to compare the Zocale to. Maybe a very large field of corn, every stalk a human being, on a desert night sky packed with stars, or a page in a notebook where every available space is filled with ink, words, letters and parts of letters.”
Toews’ subject matter is tragic and her tone is wistful but the combination is so funny. So funny.
A description of her most villainous character reads: “My father looked so tired. Daughters, I imagined him saying to himself. Who are these people?”
Miriam Toews is, I think, my favourite.
Who is your favourite?